Debunking “extraordinary claims”

We haven’t heard from our friend cl in a while, but a post of his popped up in my Google Alerts this morning, and it turns out to be an interesting example of doublethink, so I thought we could take a couple moments to look at it.

I’ve got a very simple and straight-forward example of an instance where the claim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” can easily be shown false.

The problem with extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence is that believers have no extraordinary evidence to back up their extraordinary claims (otherwise why would they be so vexed by this requirement?). It’s not at all that skeptics are making any kind of unreasonable demand. All that this oft-repeated claim means is that if you’re going to say something is true, then we ought to be able to see things in the real world that are consistent with what you claim: if you claim extraordinary things are part of the real world, then we ought to be able to see extraordinary things, in the real world, that are consistent with those claims.

But that’s too much to ask of the credulous, so they’re anxious to rationalize away this perfectly reasonably requirement. Let’s see how cl tries to get out of this one.

Take the claim that some person climbed a tree, for instance. I doubt there is anybody out there who would deny this claim’s ordinariness, as people have been known to climb trees since antiquity. If I were to make the claim that some person climbed a tree, what sort of evidence would a reasonable individual require?I’m willing to bet your answer to that question would be comprised of one or more of the following:

1) some kind of hard evidence, e.g. an authentic photograph or video footage;

2) reliable testimony from a trusted source.

If your answer is comprised of one or more of the aforementioned, then I’m going to argue that it’s fair to call those examples of “ordinary evidence.”

Notice that he’s distinguishing between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” on the basis of commonality vs. rarity. Tree-climbing is “ordinary” because people have frequently been observed to climb trees, and it’s common knowledge that humans have a long history of doing so. Likewise, photographs of people climbing trees, and trusted sources who report seeing people climb trees, are proportionately common. Since this evidence occurs frequently, and not rarely, it is “ordinary” and not “extraordinary.”

He continues with this same standard in his “extraordinary” example—only not quite.

Next, take the claim that some person climbed one of the 88-story Petronas twin towers in Malasia. I doubt there is anybody out there who would deny this claim’s extra-ordinariness, as such feats are, well… simply not ordinary. If I were to make the claim that some person climbed one of the 88-story Petronas twin towers in Malasia, what sort of evidence would a reasonable individual require?

I’m willing to bet your answer to that question is going to be the same as your answer to the previous question: either some sort of hard evidence, reliable testimony from a trusted source, or both.

As such, I’m going to argue that the person who makes the argument, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” either misuses the term extraordinary, or attempts to increase the claimant’s burden of proof without justification.

Did you catch that? Climbing the Petronas towers is “extraordinary” because it doesn’t happen very often. How often do you see hard evidence, then, of someone climbing them? Equally rare. Reliable witnesses saying they saw someone climbing them? Equally rare. By cl’s usage of “extraordinary,” the evidence is just as “extraordinary” (i.e. “rarely encountered in real life”) as the claim. Yet he denies that the evidence is extraordinary because the type of evidence (e.g. photographic, or eyewitness testimony) is the same as for the “ordinary” case. In other words, he’s using a different definition of “extraordinary,” a definition based on type rather than on frequency of occurrence.

We can use that standard too, but if that’s the case, climbing a tree and climbing a building are both “ordinary” in that they’re both examples of humans climbing things. In other words, if we define “extraordinary” as meaning that the category itself must be rare, then neither example is extraordinary, since both fit in same the category of “people climbing.” What makes the Petronas climb extraordinary is the particular set of details in which it is different from other instances of people climbing things. But then, the same is true of the evidence: what makes it extraordinary are the particular details that make this particular photograph, or this particular eyewitness testimony, different from other photographs and testimonies.

Thus, it’s not the skeptic who is misusing the term “extraordinary,” it’s cl himself who equivocates on the meaning of the term, defining the claim as extraordinary based on the rarity of the details, and defining the evidence as ordinary based on the broad category of types of evidence. If you maintain a consistent standard of what “extraordinary” means, then the evidence can and must be just as extraordinary (or just as ordinary) as the claim it supports, just as cl’s example shows. This leaves cl with a double fail on his hands, because not only does his argument fail to prove his point, but we’re also left wondering just why he feels the need to try and make this argument in the first place. People who actually have reliable evidence don’t go around trying to downplay its importance.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 17 Comments »

17 Responses to “Debunking “extraordinary claims””

  1. Ben Says:

    Why not keep him to his claim of ordinary evidence? Show us a photograph of God! The photo has to be done in such a way that we cannot mistake him for anybody or anything else. It must also be accompanied by eyewitness testimonies of several sources trusted to me.

    What’s the bet this “ordinary evidence” is too hard? I guess we just need to take his word for it.

  2. JRQ Says:

    I wonder if some of the problem cl is having is a difficulty grasping the idea that things like “evidence”, “knowledge”, “confidence”, and “certainty”, exist in degrees. A claim may be more or less consistent, in degree, with our current knowledge and understanding. If we have a claim that deviates from current knowledge, we are justified believing such a claim only when evidence also exceeds the current level of evidence. If a claim deviates more, then we also need evidence that deviates more.

    In this context, “extraordinary” evidence and “extraordinary” claims just mean evidence and claims that are relatively highly-deviant from the current state of affairs. “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is just another way of saying the strength of belief should be proportional to the strength of evidence. A bigger revision in what I accept as true requires a proportionally bigger update in the state of the evidence.

    An inability or unwillingness to see evidence as a matter of degree leads to the assumption that knowledge and evidence are either all or none. There is either evidence for a claim or not, full stop. I see this assumption often when I butt heads with believers: Science can never be 100% certain, therefore it is not any better than religious faith as a basis for belief. Christian teachings encourage this kind of categorical thinking across the board– entities are either good or evil, actions and thoughts are either sins or virtues, a person has either been saved or not.

  3. Brian Utterback Says:

    Right. Climbing the Petronas towers is not extraordinary, it is merely an extension of what is already common. Show me a video on the news and I would be okay with that evidence. Tell me that a man sprouted wings and flew to the top of the Petronas towers and I need to know the provenance of the video, sworn eye witness testimony, background checks on the witnesses and probably more still.

  4. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    cl? Equivocating?


  5. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    Check out the comments following cl’s post. I actually linked back to this blog from a time before when the topic of “extraordinary evidence” came up.

    I think I see what he was trying to get at though. Take an extraordinary claim, like walking on water. Now, if you hear eyewitness testimony of said occurrence, does that testimony count as extraordinary evidence? Obviously, the answer is no, it’s more believable to say the witness is mistaken or lying. But, technically, it is eyewitness testimony of something extraordinary. Thus when a skeptic makes the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, the believer provides what they consider conclusive evidence (such as eyewitness accounts), but the skeptic responds that such evidence isn’t evidence of the “extraordinary”, making the believer feel as though goal posts have been moved.

  6. Hunt Says:

    I don’t think you can simply take ordinary means of conveying evidence, apply it to an extraordinary circumstance and then call it extraordinary evidence. Perhaps paradoxically, I would call eyewitness testimony of a murder less convincing then eyewitness testimony of today’s weather. Similarly, eyewitness testimony of a man walking on water is more suspect than eyewitness testimony of a man swimming in water. To confirm a man walking on water I would need to have an expert investigation, perhaps with scientists in the water with him, external observers, journalists, etc. Only then would the event not be yawn inciting. I think most people would agree. A man truly walking on water would be an earth shattering event and would require a great deal of confirmation.

  7. Hunt Says:

    On more thing I’d like to add is that, as with all things that seems to disrupt status quo, “extraordinary” events must be scrutinized for ulterior motive, agenda, propaganda, and so forth. They must be vetted through more stringent means than normal doxastic delegation. We each individually, and society as a whole, have various means through which we trust and verify bits of information that impinge on us. Perhaps this is the best place to situation the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary events. Extraordinary events must be scrutinized at higher security levels before they are trusted.

  8. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Good points. I think a key issue is the whole matter of “eyewitness testimony,” which people tend to regard as being much more reliable than it really is. If Billy says he saw Bobby climbing a tree, his testimony is ordinary evidence of an ordinary claim. But can we trust it? Maybe Billy is mad at Bobby and is just trying to get him in trouble, knowing that he’s not allowed to climb that tree.

    The principle we’re getting at is that the evidence as a whole needs to be more consistent with the extraordinary claim being true than it is with some less extraordinary claim being true. It’s not that some particular piece of evidence needs to present itself via some strange and unusual mechanism, it’s that the evidence as a whole should rule out the possibility that people are misperceiving and/or misrepresenting things.

    Yes, for run-of-the-mill mundane reports, it’s often sufficient to just take someone’s word for it. This is common evidence for common claims. But it’s also common for people to give inaccurate reports, either through honest error, or through inherent bias, or a deliberate attempt to lie in order to achieve some kind of tangible or intangible gain. If we do not wish to be gullible, we need to consider all the evidence, and all of the claims, to see which claim is most consistent with the most evidence. Only under extraordinary circumstances will the evidence turn out to be most consistent with an extraordinary claim. Hence the need to check for extraordinary evidence.

  9. ssjessiechan Says:

    “To confirm a man walking on water I would need to have an expert investigation, perhaps with scientists in the water with him, external observers, journalists, etc.”

    Even so, there’s one piece of extraordinary evidence I require before believing any (reproduce-able) supernatural or paranormal claims, which trumps even all that sciency stuff. The feat has to be vetted by magicians–preferably James Randi. You can get a lot of stuff by a scientist, because they don’t expect to be tricked. Magicians, however, know what to look for because they can do it themselves.

    Something I’ve been hearing a lot lately listening to folks who are persuaded by paranormal claims is that they seem to think memory is infallible, and that people who wouldn’t lie outright can’t be genuinely mistaken, especially if it’s themselves. It’s the “Loony Lord or Liar” argument all over again. But who’s to say you didn’t just mistake what you saw for something else, or accidentally add details as you went over and over it in your memory? That doesn’t make you a liar–it makes you human.

  10. nal Says:

    Is anyone else having problems accessing

    I get a Go Daddy page. Whois shows it registered to Xiang Wu in Toronto. Last Google cache was on Jun 24, 2010.

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Wow, cl lost his domain some time last night (early this morning, UK time):

    Domain ID:D18061685-LRMS
    Created On:27-May-2007 01:54:48 UTC
    Last Updated On:09-Jul-2010 00:29:01 UTC
    Expiration Date:27-May-2011 01:54:48 UTC
    Sponsoring Inc. (R171-LRMS)
    Registrant ID:CR51630146
    Registrant Name:Xiang Wu
    Registrant Organization:

  12. nal Says:

    BTW, devastating debunking.

  13. mikespeir Says:

    Should you be publishing that info, Deacon?

  14. Chigliakus Says:

    Should you be publishing that info, Deacon?

    Why not? It’s just the whois info, it’s freely available to anyone with internet access.

  15. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I went back and snipped out some of the details. It is just the published whois info, so if anybody wants it they can easily grab it.

  16. NAL Says:

    Here’s cl’s Twitter page:

    His last tweet was one about a final post at TWIM. He has a recent (July 8) comment over at Common Sense Atheism.

  17. NAL Says:

    What? July eighth.